It could have been a disaster.
Barcelona could have started Lionel Messi and he could have re-aggravated his hamstring and been out for an extended period of time. Or, the team could have stubbornly left him off the bench and been eliminated by Paris Saint-Germain in yesterday's Champions League quarterfinal match.
But instead, the Catalan side played it perfectly.
Messi started the game on the bench, was only brought on after the team went down by a goal early in the second half on Javier Pastore's strike and would help Barcelona earn a 1-1 draw (3-3 on aggregate) that sent them to the next round due to an advantage in away goals.
For as deep as Barcelona's roster is, Messi's absence was felt in the first half. Despite holding onto 62 percent of possession in the first half, it was PSG that had the majority of the threatening chances early. Were it not for a Herculean effort from keeper Victor Valdes, the Catalans would have been trailing much earlier.
Needing only a scoreless or 1-1 draw to advance, Barcelona looked to be in excellent condition at Camp Nou. The Catalans could simply play their brand of tiki-taka, control possession, slow the pace of the game and rely on solid defense to move on.
But PSG's poise and speed on the counter-attack soon made that simple little plan a perilous one. Ezequiel Lavezzi, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Lucas Moura and Pastore were all brilliant, and it became obvious that Barcelona was going to struggle to keep the Parisian side off the board.
But because the team was cautious and didn't start Messi, it had an ace up its sleeve once it went down in the second half. Messi wouldn't score, but he did break down two defenders before finding David Villa in the box, who flicked a pass back to Pedro.
And Pedro was decisive, smashing home the equalizing score and the goal that would send Barca to the semifinals.
There is a popular argument that emerges whenever the "Who is the best player in the world, Messi or Cristiano Ronald?" question is raised. Messi has the deepest roster in the world supporting him, argue the Ronaldo supporters, as though the rest of Real Madrid's roster is chopped liver.
And to a certain degree, there is validity in the claim. Messi's achievements can't be removed from the context of his wonderful teammates that often set the table for him. Andres Iniesta is one of the game's great geniuses, and Xavi Hernandez is one of its finest technicians.
Barcelona is an All-Star team compiled on the club level.
But you could see the cutting edge the team lacked without Messi in the final third. His ability to dribble through a crowd, to rip off a shot with nary an inch to spare, his precise finishing, even his ability to play facilitator for his teammates, was clearly missing in the first 45.
But it was missing by design for a team that didn't need him until it trailed in the game. The end goal was to keep Messi healthy and to advance to the next round.
After all, with either Borussia Dortmund, Bayern Munich or Real Madrid waiting, what good would advancing be if Messi couldn't play because his injury was worsened against PSG?
In other words, on Wednesday Barcelona had its cake and ate it too. What else is new? Once again, the team played its cards just right.
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